A New Jersey judge explained Wednesday why he asked a woman seeking a restraining order whether she could have avoided forced sex by closing her legs.
Judge John Russo Jr. of Ocean County said he made the remark in a May 2016 hearing to try to get the woman to offer more details supporting the allegation of rape in her application for a restraining order, report NJ.com and the Asbury Park Press. Russo testified in a Trenton hearing before the New Jersey Supreme Court’s Advisory Committee on Judicial Conduct.
“I wanted to make sure I gave her the opportunity, every chance I could, to get the facts on the record that would go to establishing her claims of domestic violence,” Russo said.
“The intent was not to humiliate or embarrass her,” Russo testified. “It was to try to get her to react to something I was suggesting and say, ‘that didn’t happen, but I did this.’ ”
The advisory committee filed amended ethics charges against Russo in August. According to the amended complaint, the woman in Russo’s courtroom had alleged the man not only forced her to have sex but also that he disabled her car, left her stranded, threatened to burn her house down, stole from her, and threatened to take her daughter away if she ever left him. The woman had been in a relationship with the man for 11 years.
Russo asked the question after stopping a defense lawyer for the accused man from asking the woman about past sexual advances from other men when she was working as a dancer and whether she was capable of asserting herself against them.
Russo then asked the woman whether she knew how to stop men from having intercourse with her. She replied that she could physically harm them, tell them to stop and run away.
“Run away, get away,” the judge said, according to the complaint. “Anything else?”
“That’s all I know,” the woman replied.
“Block your body parts?” Russo asked.
“Yeah,” the woman replied.
“Close your legs? Call the police?” Russo asked. “Did you do any of those things?”
Russo testified Wednesday that his suggestions weren’t an effort to suggest she should have done any of those things. “These were the things that came to my mind in the moment that might get her to start testifying,” he said.
Russo said he did not issue a restraining order against the accused man because he didn’t find the woman’s testimony credible.
The ethics charges say Russo was discourteous and mistreated the victim by assuming the role of defense counsel and asked questions that are irrelevant in an application for a restraining order.
He is also accused of using his position as a judge to try to reschedule a guardianship hearing for his disabled adult son, failing to recuse himself in a case in which he knew the litigants in high school, and calling a mother about compliance with a paternity test without the father being part of the call.
Russo was removed from judicial duties in April 2017 following an allegation that he threw a file at a law clerk, according to the Asbury Park Press. He was placed on paid administrative leave the next month. Russo refused to undergo a mental health evaluation, according to a certification by Ocean County’s assignment judge, Marlene Lynch Ford, submitted in a federal lawsuit that Russo filed against Ford and the court’s presiding judge.
Ford said the request for an evaluation was spurred by concerns over “threatening or bizarre statements” by the judge, “explosive fits of rage,” and “emotional immaturity” that included hanging a picture of a “poop emoji” in his chambers.
Russo’s suit claims the two judges discriminated against him because of his disabled son. His lawyers have said he observed the highest standards of conduct, according to prior coverage by the Asbury Park Press.